It's a case of long, but not far.
Gulf coast fishermen have waited a long time to keep gag grouper, as the season closed Feb. 1-March 31. Now that the season has reopened, anglers dreaming of the classic grouper sandwich don't have to look far.
Indeed, grouper-friendly habitat lies within easy reach of anglers running the same boats used for snook, trout and redfish trips. You'll need to pick your days to avoid the discomfort and navigational hazards of rough seas.
Plan wisely and here's where you can expect to find gag grouper.
If someone drained the gulf, you'd find a lot of foreign items strewn across the bottom. From steel barges to retired U.S. Army tanks to concrete culverts, the collection bolsters the natural bottom contour by creating habitat around which marine ecosystems — including gag grouper — flourish.
Armed with stout conventional outfits carrying 50-pound main line and 80-pound fluorocarbon leaders, reef anglers often catch their gags on live pinfish, grunts or scaled sardines ("whitebait"). Frozen sardines and squid are more user-friendly, plus the scent of dead baits stimulates the reef scene.
You can further entice grouper and their reef neighbors by hanging a frozen chum block in a mesh bag. As the block melts in the water, drifting bits of ground baitfish serve as appetizers. Chopping dead baits into fingernail-size chunks enhances the chum trail.
Fish and dive charts for the North Suncoast will have location details for artificial reefs. You can also find reef site details by visiting www.myfwc.com and typing "reefs" in the search box.
From Hudson northward, rocky bottom becomes more prevalent in the coastal and nearshore waters. Ranging in size from small limestone cottages to sprawling subsurface subdivisions, rocks in 8-15 feet of water see loads of grouper taking up residence during the spring months.
Aggressive and territorial, gags will blast anything that crosses their radar and one of the most productive offerings is a shallow diving plug about 6 inches long. Resembling mullet, ladyfish or trout, these baits take a brutal pounding when a hungry gag takes notice.
Use medium-heavy spinning gear or baitcasting outfits strung with 50-pound braided line and hang on tightly. Even undersized grouper will yank the rod from idle hands.
Rock 'n' troll
Now, if you don't mind pushing a little farther offshore, to the 20- to 30-foot range, trolling big-lipped plugs like the Mann's Stretch 25, Magnum Rapala or 113 MirrOlure across deeper rocks might connect you with an arm-stretching giant.
A steady presentation at 2-3 knots will bring the lures over the grouper's lair just long enough for a quick look. The fish will actually feel the vibrations of the approaching baits before making visual contact, so they're usually ready to rumble.
For maximum effect, hold your fishing rod and jerk it side to side when the lure crosses the rock. This imparts a fleeing action that sends indecisive gags over the edge.
Trolling is one of the most effective methods of finding new grouper spots. Pick a promising area, troll criss-cross patterns until you get a strike then mark the spot for further inspection.
You'll often discover smaller "satellite" rocks that go unnoticed by trolling the perimeter of primary structures. Modest, unassuming rocks can hold freight train gags that see little fishing pressure.
Also look for crab trap buoys. Crabbers set their pots on hard bottom, where crabs live. You won't find many "fish here" signs in the gulf, but this comes pretty close.
Rules of engagement
Licensed anglers can keep an aggregate of five grouper, two of which can be gag grouper. Keeper gags must measure at least 22 inches overall.
Anglers targeting grouper and any other reef fish with natural baits anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico must use nonstainless steel circle hooks, which minimize deep hooking and facilitate prompt release.
Offset circle hooks are allowed in federal waters (past 9 nautical miles), but reef fish pursuits in state waters require nonoffset hooks.
Federal regulations also require vessels targeting reef fish to carry a hook removal tool and a venting device. The latter enables anglers to safely deflate reef fish whose swim bladders swell from rapid ascension.